The language of learning

How does a person teach social studies to a student who speaks only Taiwanese?

Or a student who speaks Sinhalese? Or Haitian Creole?

How about teaching social studies to a classroom including all three, as well as English- and Spanish-speaking students?

It's a question Federal Way teachers ask themselves more and more.

The minority population in Federal Way classrooms is growing. And with that comes the added challenges of teaching immigrant children, many of whom don't speak English.

There are currently 105 different languages spoken by families in the Federal Way School District. The most popular languages after English are Spanish, Korean, Russian and Ukrainian. Many students speak rare languages spoken only in small villages or islands. Two students, for example, speak Yapese, a language spoken by 6,600 people on the island of Yap in the western Pacific Ocean.

Thirty percent of Federal Way students come from non-English-speaking families, said school district spokeswoman Diane Turner.

At Woodmont Elementary, where more than 60 percent of students are minorities or immigrants, many students arrive for their first year of school not speaking any English at all. Nearly one quarter of Woodmont students are enrolled in the English Language Learners (ELL) program, meaning they need extra help to be able to complete their regular school work.

The students who don't speak English could arrive in kindergarten through fifth grade, said student achievement facilitator Tracy Korvas.

"A family may move in and they have multiple siblings... and they're all starting at the same place with no English background," Korvas said.

The students are all expected to learn the grade level material, regardless of their previous education or English language experience.

"We have so many different languages within a classroom," Korvas said. "The kids are sitting there, for instance, they're supposed to pass the WASL and they don't even have the basics."

Students who don't speak English are not provided an interpreter during the WASL (Washington Assessment of Student Learning), nor are they allowed to take the test translated into their language.

"We have to assume that they're capable of doing our schoolwork, and we have to get them to that point," Korvas said.

Not all Federal Way schools are provided on-site interpreters. At Woodmont, a para-educator who knows several languages helps out, but multilingual staff members in Federal Way schools are rare.

"She just happens to speak different languages," Korvas said. "We are just lucky that she happens to be a staff member and she interprets for us."

Teachers throughout the school have cards in the classroom defining items, such as door and desk, to provide further help for ELL students. The students are also eager to help one another out.

"Peers are always helpful to use. If it's somebody that speaks their language, that's always nice to have," Korvas said.

Even students who don't speak a peer's native language can provide a big help.

"The kids understand kids real well, so the kids can use non-verbals or the kids will use English repetitively, and that's a nice teaching tool for the new kids," Korvas said. "We have so many that speak different languages that it's just become the norm to help new kids out."

First grade teacher Becky Buchanan, who has several English Language Learners (ELL) students in her class, said it is exciting to have a blend of students in her classroom.

Out of 22 students in Buchanan's class, nine come from families where another language is spoken at home. Six students are identified as ELL.

Students who speak little or no English attend classes with the rest of the school population in Federal Way schools. Throughout the first few hours of each school day, ELL teachers pull ELL students out of classrooms for 20 minutes of small group tutoring.

The students are eager and they learn fast, Buchanan said.

During regular class time, Buchanan uses lots of nonverbal cues to communicate with her ELL students. She blows whistles, claps her hands, gestures, rings chimes and drops marbles in a glass jar.

In celebration of a correct answer during a math lesson, students shout in unison "yippee-yi-ay" and "yee-haw," exclamations that are understood by speakers of almost every language.

Teaching English language learners is often frustrating for first grade teachers who are faced with the challenge of teaching advanced students as well as helping students who don't know even the basics.

Buchanan said that in addition to non-verbal cues, she uses visual directions with pictures. If she wants students to write, then cut, then glue, she places pictures or the actual items on the front board in the order the students should complete the task.

"I am always amazed that our ELL students adjust and learn as quickly as they do," Buchanan said.

By the end of the year, those students in Buchanan's class who may not have known the alphabet in the beginning will be able to read 50 to 55 words per minute with an accuracy level of 90 percent. They will also be faced with the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL).

Whatever teachers at Woodmont are doing to teach ELL students seems to be working, said district spokeswoman Diane Turner. The elementary school continues to achieve some of the highest WASL scores in the district. And Federal Way continues to remain competitive with other districts WASL scores.

Contact Margo Horner: or (253) 925-5565.

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